Version tested: PlayStation 2
It'd be very easy to saddle up on my gigantic building-straddling horse and fire rockets down at Rockstar for the bloodless cash-in exercise that is Grand Theft Auto: Vice City Stories. Five and a half years (and five games) down the line, and barely a technical improvement worth a damn. This is a game that's not only showing its age, but begging for loose change.
It's also quite reasonable to take a more forgiving view of the return of an old friend. This is, after all, a reworking of one of our all-time favourite games, released at a tempting price. Sure, it unapologetically recycles the Vice City environments, but spruces it up with 59 new missions, a fresh storyline to work through, new characters to meet, and includes probably the finest soundtrack ever to grace a videogame. What's not to like?
I guess the answer to that is simple: Rockstar has been stubbornly resistant to change. Back in 2001 and 2002 when free-roaming sandbox games were revolutionary, we could forgive slightly dodgy combat, an unhelpful camera system and downright annoying inability to checkpoint progress or autosave after a successful mission. The rest of the game was so breathtakingly fresh and ambitious compared to what was out there that such issues were somewhat glossed over.
But in early 2007, Rockstar has some serious competition to contend with, and even some of the lesser contenders have managed to fix all of the problems we've just mentioned. Take your pick: The Godfather, Saints Row, Mercenaries, Scarface, Crackdown. They might not have the personality of the GTA games, but they all do the gameplay basics far better now, and going back to The Way Things Were is a horribly jarring experience.
Although it's fair to say that playing Vice City Stories on a PS2 is a slightly more pleasurable experience than on the PSP, the controls still feel hobbled in many of the areas that matter. The on-foot controls feel disappointingly out of touch with what we'd expect from a modern videogame, with an unforgivably rubbish auto aim system that routinely gets you into trouble. If it's not merrily targeting innocents whenever you hit R1, it's yanking the camera behind you to follow someone entirely irrelevant to what's going on. Taking manual aim might be the solution, if it weren't such a complete faff to do so. Name another game that makes you auto target with R1 first and then requires you to click down L3? It's beyond horrible. And worse still, even when you do manage to activate manual aim, the glacial pace at which the reticule moves across the screen renders it completely redundant when four Cholo goons are charging at you with bats. All Rockstar had to do was implement a standard two stick manual aiming system by default, with R1 for lock on like everyone else and the whole game improves in an instant.
Also, exactly how hard can it be to checkpoint progress mid-mission, or auto save after finishing one, or let you simply retry a failed mission? To force the player to laboriously waste ages driving back to a safe house to save a game is bad enough. But to make players go through the same bits of a mission over and over (and often over and over and over and over) again when all you need to do is that final annoyingly tough bit is just a bloody minded, thoughtless game design choice in 2007. We've come to expect games to checkpoint since well before even GTA III came out, so for Rockstar to expect us to put up with it these days is asking a lot. It's like this generation's equivalent of the one-hit-kill, and there's no place for it in such a high profile game.
Faces of Wart
And so, if your love of GTA knows no bounds and you can still tolerate such fundamental issues, then you'd still expect the pros to outweigh the cons. We came to this really expecting to love it, warts and all, but didn't quite appreciate how many of the little things would annoy me. Yet, even when you force yourself to grind your way through the missions, it's hard not feel disappointed at the general dip in quality on show in most other areas of the game. Not only do many (most?) of the missions lack flair, but the characters and storyline woven into the action feels uninspired compared with previous GTAs. In the past, GTA could charm us into submission with the kind of top notch voice work and razor sharp writing that, frankly, embarrassed other games by comparison. Vice City Stories, though, feels like a bad cover version, full of grotesque caricatures with grudges that make little sense for you to get involved with. If they were funny, it would help, but they're mainly just objectionable idiots with annoying accents and bad lines.
GTA stories are hardly known for their plausibility, but Vic Vance's spiral into a life of criminal activities, gratuitous violence and wanton destruction feels like a petty join-the-dots exercise to get you to kill an awful lot of people for the sake of it. Kicking off in an army barrack on the western edge of the two islands, you're drawn into running errands for money that soon get you kicked out. From there, the kind of missions on offer just descend into GTA cliché: mass murdering rampages and tiresome fetch quests simply because some disfunctional low-life said so.
One mission midway through just summed up the pointlessness of it all for me: a woman tells you that she has employed some heavies to bump off a welfare officer - so you're basically tasked with bumping them off to solve the problem. Hey, how about just telling them that it's all been a terrible mistake and not to bother? There's no real sense of purpose for furthering your criminal career because it inevitably results in more of these idiots coming out of the woodwork to give you more cut and paste missions.